Lack of domestic vaccine capacity leaves Canada at mercy of big pharma

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Ontario government official announce partnership with the federal government, city of Toronto and Sanofi to expand domestic vaccine manufacturing capacity. Image credit: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

Canada's faltering COVID-19 vaccine rollout is all the more stunning in light of news that little Cuba is on the brink of having its own vaccine -- actually one of five COVID vaccines being developed by the tiny nation's booming biotech industry.

It's hard to believe it has come to this. Forty years ago, when a biotech industry was just a gleam in Fidel Castro's eye, Canada had already made it to the top.

We already had one of the world's leading biotech firms -- Connaught Labs, a publicly owned enterprise that had developed and produced its own vaccines for seven decades, and whose research scientists were considered among the best in the world.

Cuba, on the other hand, had only a modest lab with six technicians. But Castro had a dream -- creating an innovative biotech industry to produce vaccines for Cubans and others in developing countries often ignored by big pharma.

Brian Mulroney had a different dream -- privatizing Canada's public enterprises in line with requests from the business community. So, in the 1980s, the Mulroney government sold Connaught Labs, then one of the world's most innovative vaccine developers.

That privatization has left us scrambling for vaccines in today's pandemic -- a dangerous situation that last week drove the desperate Trudeau government to announce a $415-million federal contribution to the expansion of vaccine production capacity at the old Connaught plant, now owned by French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi Pasteur.

That is not a solution. On the contrary, it's a reckless use of a lot of public money.

It's not clear what strings will be attached -- if any -- to the $415 million from Ottawa, plus $55 million from Ontario, for a total of nearly half a billion dollars of public money.

Ottawa is in ongoing negotiations with Sanofi over a contract aimed at giving Canadians priority access to vaccines produced at the Connaught plant during a future pandemic, federal industry minister Francois-Philippe Champagne said last week.

But surely it would have been better to postpone announcing the $415 million until after Sanofi had agreed to the government's terms about priority access for Canadians.

Without that nailed down, we can just keep our fingers crossed that Sanofi will come through for us in the future.

The situation reveals how much Canada is at the mercy of the powerful drug industry now that we no longer have a domestic vaccine capacity that we control.

Indeed, Sanofi might use its negotiations with Ottawa to push hard on another issue that's important to Sanofi and other big pharma companies.

In December 2017, big pharma was outraged when the Trudeau government announced changes to the Patented Medicines Regulations aimed at reducing patented drug prices by billions of dollars.

Big pharma has retaliated by not submitting 39 drugs, including treatments for cancer and Parkinson's, to Health Canada for approval, citing uncertainty over the proposed changes.

With big pharma effectively holding a gun to Canada's head, the Trudeau government has twice postponed implementing the tough new regulations, now delayed until July 1.

The pandemic has only increased the clout of the industry, which largely controls access to COVID vaccines desperately needed by Canadians and others.

That increased clout may explain why Justin Trudeau sided with big pharma -- risking his image as a "progressive" -- in opposing a World Trade Organization resolution overriding drug companies' patent rights so poor countries can access COVID vaccines.

Many commentators argue that we should be more accommodating to big pharma, given its life-and-death powers.

But, despite providing lengthy patent protection for its drugs, Canada hasn't gained much in return. Multinational drug companies operate here mostly through branch plants that carry out little research.

Now we're poised to give Sanofi hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars in the hope of ensuring a future vaccine supply -- perhaps in exchange for cancelling regulations aimed at saving Canadians billions of dollars in drug costs?

If we really want a biotech company we can rely on and that doesn't hold a gun to our head, we should spend our money creating an enterprise that we actually own and control -- a little secret learned by Cuba and, decades earlier, by the brilliant Canadians who created Connaught.

Linda McQuaig is a journalist and author of The Sport & Prey of Capitalists: How the Rich are Stealing Canada's Public Wealth. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.

Image credit: Premier of Ontario Photography/Flickr

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